UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Comments Needed Now! The Trump Administration Might Revoke Vital Beryllium Protections

Quick recap: I have previously written (here, here) about OSHA’s efforts to delay implementation of its final, protective standard for workers exposed to beryllium. The delays follow decades of work, a lengthy rule-making process, and solid scientific evidence. Despite this, in June and in response to pressure from the construction and shipyard industries, OSHA decided to (once again) solicit stakeholder comments on whether its final beryllium rule should extend protections to workers in these two industries. (Like there hadn’t already been ample time and opportunity—but I won’t go there.)

SOS! The comment period closes on Monday, Aug 28th.

As many workers and families know all too well, beryllium is a very dangerous material. It’s a carcinogen and the cause of chronic beryllium disease, a devastating illness. There’s no real rescue from this slow, incurable, and often fatal lung disease.

Please take a minute to send in a comment and let OSHA know that weakening this protection for construction and shipyard workers IS NOT OK. They should not do it. These workers need and deserve this protection.

Comments must be received by Monday, August 28, at 11:59 pm. Here is information on how to submit your comment.

You must include the line below that lists the agency name and the docket number.  (You can put that in the RE: line).

I am submitting this comment on OSHA Docket No. OSHA-H005C-2006-0870, Occupational Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds in Construction and Shipyard Sectors.

To submit your comment, go here and click on the “Comment Now” box in the upper right corner. You can also fax the OSHA Docket Office: 202-693-1648

Here is some possible language, though I encourage you to add and make it your own.

Docket Office
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Docket No. OSHA- H005C-2006-00870
Room N-3653
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20210

I strongly oppose every provision of OSHA’s new proposal that revokes the ancillary provisions for the construction and ship yard sectors that OSHA had already adopted on January 9, 2017. The Agency must not revoke any of the provisions promulgated in the final rules on January 9, and they must assure that the full standards are implemented as published. Adopting any of the provision in this new proposal would lead to more death and disease among exposed shipyard and construction workers. I strongly oppose this proposal and its mission to create a two tiered system of protection for workers exposed to beryllium. OSHA must move forward and implement the rules as promulgated.


Your Name Here

Sign and date

Public comment is a critical component of our democracy. Please take a moment to weigh in on this one. And remind OSHA that their FIRST (and statutory) priority is the protection of workers’ health and safety, not the protection and preference of the industry in question.

Is Sam Clovis a Scientist? A Racist? 9 Questions the Senate Should Ask

Sam Clovis speaks at a Rushmore Political Action Committee luncheon while campaigning for US Senate, Sioux City, Iowa, March 24, 2014. Credit: Jerry Mennenga/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News

Things are not going so well for President Trump’s nominee for the position of under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE) at the US Department of Agriculture. This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department’s various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike. The job also encompasses the role of USDA chief scientist, leading Congress in 2008 to emphasize that the person who fills it should actually be a scientist. But Sam Clovis is not one. And that’s not the half of it.

Clovis is a climate denier. He has espoused racist and homophobic views and embraced wild conspiracy theories. He may even be caught up in the Trump campaign’s Russia mess, having reportedly recruited a key Russia-connected foreign policy advisor to the campaign. But while opposition to Clovis is growing, the White House, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and other boosters insist that he is just the guy for this job. I disagree, strongly. And I have a lot of questions.

Not a scientist…or an economist

Let’s start with Clovis’s scientific qualifications, which are non-existent despite the clear requirement embedded in federal law. Supporters have recently attempted to obscure his lack of training by describing him alternately as an economist or an academician. Let’s take those in turn:

Economist? No. Perhaps Clovis taught an economics class to undergraduates at Morningside College (or perhaps not), but even if he did that hardly makes him an economist. He has no economics degree and no published work in the field. If he really were a trained economist, especially an agricultural economist, that would seem to meet the legal requirement. But he’s not.

And what of the “academician” label? Well, sure, he has a PhD in public administration and taught college courses, so he has some academic cred. But as an ally from farm country quipped in an email last week, “so does an Oxford-educated Shakespeare expert but you wouldn’t have that person running USDA’s science office.”

Enough said.

An increasingly troubling nominee

Since news of his nomination initially leaked back in May, Clovis has been silent in public. But his racially explosive, offensive, homophobic, and just-plain-ignorant past statements continue to haunt him.

Transcripts and audio recordings recently uncovered by CNN show that he used his radio talk show in Iowa during 2011-2013 to hurl racially-charged insults at a variety of political leaders and to traffic in baseless fringe theories on topics ranging from then-President Obama’s birthplace and his reaction to the attack on the US embassy in Libya to the intentions of climate scientists and advocates. And just this week, new CNN reporting revealed that between 2012 and 2014, Clovis argued that homosexuality is a choice and that the sanctioning of same-sex marriage could lead to the legalization of pedophilia.

This is all deeply troubling.

What the Senate—and the public—need to hear from Clovis

When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to convene a public hearing, at which its 21 members will have the opportunity to hear directly from the nominee and evaluate his suitability for the job. Based on this hearing, the committee members will vote to advance Clovis’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration…or not.

With that in mind, here are nine questions the committee members should ask the wannabe chief scientist:

1. Are we missing something? A science degree you’ve been keeping quiet about? In nutrition (like the last scientist to hold this position) or weed science (like the one before that)? Or soil science? Food science? Agronomy? Entomology? Any relevant scientific discipline at all??

2. Academic credentials aside, how do you explain your role in advancing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and making racially offensive and homophobic statements while a radio host in Iowa just a few years ago? We’ve read the transcripts and heard the audio of your racist comments about former President Obama and other black and Latino government officials and your theories about “LGBT behavior.” They are unscientific and deeply troubling, particularly in the aftermath of the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Explain yourself. Why should anyone take you seriously as a proponent (much less a practitioner) of fact-based decision-making? And how can we be confident you won’t throw science overboard in favor of special interest politics and pandering to the lowest common denominator of conspiracy theorists, racists, and homophobes?

3. Do you accept the science of climate change, and would you increase support for the evidence-based tools farmers need to build resilience to a warmer, more volatile climate? You’ve made past comments that climate science is “junk science,” a view that is at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. And inaction on climate change is contraindicated by what agricultural researchers and farmers on the ground are seeing across this country every day—witness, for example, the “flash drought” that has wreaked havoc on wheat farms and cattle ranches in the Dakotas and Montana. Looking ahead, this recent study predicted that future harvests of wheat, soybeans, and corn could drop by 22 to 49 percent, mostly due to water stress. Are you aware that farmers are becoming more vulnerable to floods, droughts, heat, and pests triggered by climate change? What are your thoughts on the contribution of soil health to climate resilience and productivity? As chief scientist, would you seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and extension, and particularly the department’s network of regional Climate Hubs, to help farmers and ranchers better cope with our changing climate?

4. Okay, so you’re an “economist” (wink). What is your economic theory for improving conditions for everyday farmers and their communities, and what research would you prioritize to help get there? The Trump campaign, which you advised as a national co-chair in 2016, promised to help farmers and bring economic activity back to rural communities. What economic approach would best enable US agriculture to provide long-term benefits to farmers, American taxpayers, and eaters? What would be the most strategic investment we can make in research to prepare us now for a future that provides a plentiful, environmentally responsible, affordable and healthy food supply, buffered from destructive boom and bust cycles?

5. As chief scientist, would you seek to boost USDA funding for research, particularly in agroecology? Robust agricultural research programs provide critical tools for farmers as they seek ways to profitably manage their operations and protect their soil and water resources. Congress boosted funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers, though the appropriation is still well below the full amount authorized for AFRI. Agroecology, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. Nearly 500 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecological research. Would you support such investments in farmers and our food system?

6. How would you employ the research and education functions of the USDA to help farmers and communities curb water pollution? Agricultural water pollution is a serious and growing problem, as illustrated by this year’s biggest ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the repeated drinking water problems experienced by Midwestern cities such as Des Moines and Toledo in recent years. Are you familiar with long-term studies from Corn Belt land grant universities showing that farming practices such as perennial prairie strips and innovative crop rotations can dramatically decrease erosion and nitrogen runoff? How would you seek to use USDA research, education, and extension to help farmers adopt these methods and reduce downstream pollution?

7. What scientific and economic research would help policymakers better understand and improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? In 2014, this program (formerly food stamps) lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and abundant data show that SNAP is a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being. The program is also a lifeline for many small towns and rural communities. As chief scientist, what research would you prioritize to improve understanding of the program’s benefits and how it could be improved to better serve public health and Americans still struggling economically?

8. How would you help ensure that the next update of federal dietary guidelines is based on the best science? The USDA partners with the Department of Health and Human Services to regularly update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These recommendations must be based on the best available nutrition science, and the process typically involves convening an advisory committee comprised of nationally recognized nutrition and medical researchers, academics, and other experts to review that body of science. The next update will happen under the Trump administration’s watch in 2020. As chief scientist, what USDA research would you prioritize between now and then to ensure that this process is based on sound science in the interest of public health, and not unduly influenced by food industry interests?

9. What would you do to ensure scientific integrity at the USDA? The Trump administration’s record on respecting science in federal decision-making is abysmal. Actions and decisions at the USDA—and all federal agencies—must be strongly grounded in science to improve the lives of Americans. What will you do to swim against this administration’s tide and achieve a high standard of scientific integrity at the USDA? Will you commit to uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy? And how will you ensure that there are adequate resources and leadership to enable the USDA’s thousands of staff scientists to do their vitally important jobs?

The bottom line

The breadth of the under secretary and chief scientist position is vast and the challenges faced by our food and agricultural system are growing. We need a serious and highly qualified person in charge of the nation’s agricultural science office. That person must be thoroughly grounded in the scientific process and prepared to rely on evidence to help solve these challenges for all Americans.

I believe Sam Clovis falls far short on multiple counts. And I’ll be watching closely in the coming weeks to see how the Senate evaluates him, and if they come to the same conclusion.

Going in the Wrong Direction: We Need More Advice on the Impacts of Climate Change

As of Sunday, the federal Advisory Panel for the Sustained National Climate Assessment is no more.  The charter for the panel was not renewed. That makes little sense from any perspective I can imagine. This panel was advising the federal government on how to best improve the scientific information for state and local governments, businesses and the public on the ongoing impacts of climate change.

What is the best way to help inform local planning processes, for example in places experiencing chronic tidal flooding due to rising seas? What information do architects and engineers need and in what form? According to the website, the panel was due to report in 2018.  I guess the Trump Administration couldn’t wait to cut off that flow of science to the public.

I served on the advisory panel for the Third National Climate Assessment (the Fourth is in process) mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The Third Assessment advisory panel was responsible for crafting the assessment itself. In addition, we recommended that the government engage in a sustained assessment process which would provide ongoing information on the impacts of climate change on a continuing basis, rather than just every four years as in the full assessments. The reason is that a lot of changes are happening quickly from severe weather, like recent heat waves in the west,  to changes affecting fisheries in New England.

The sustained assessment effort is intended  to help government, business and the public have better information for decision-making. That’s exactly what many state and local officials have been asking for from the federal government according to the Washington Post report. Of course, the government can provide information without external advisors, but why would it want to? The advisors are not compensated and they bring substantial expertise in various fields as well as new perspectives. The government only stands to gain from their service.

Unfortunately this isn’t the first time the Trump administration has gutted an advisory panel, nor is it the first time, unfortunately, that they have taken steps to sideline science. These actions are deeper than just a different perspective or approach to policy related to climate change or public health, safety and environmental protections. Terminating this advisory panel hinders efforts to get better information for the public. Is that the Trump Administration’s intent? Providing less public information doesn’t reduce or even hide the impacts of global warming, it just makes us all that much less prepared for those impacts.

Got Climate Questions, Administrator Pruitt? Ask the US National Academy of Sciences

Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, appears to need some help in understanding the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

Back in March, for example, he expressed doubt that carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels is a primary driver of climate change, stating “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Apparently, he hadn’t yet taken the time to read the EPA’s own website, which very clearly stated that “carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change.” (Well, perhaps he had:  EPA political officials subsequently removed this and other climate science content from  the EPA website).

He also seems to have not read the multiple assessments of the US National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations that have come to the same conclusion. Or asked for advice from the scientific community to help him understand the rigorous, painstakingly documented, peer-reviewed basis for this robust conclusion.

Reading scientific assessments takes time. They can be a real slog. Scott Pruitt is a busy man. And asking for advice can be hard.

I get it.

But it is important that the EPA Administrator have access to the best available scientific advice, including on climate change, to help inform and guide his leadership of the agency.

In June, Administrator Pruitt called for a review of the findings of climate science, “a true legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.” He intends to set up a “red-team, blue-team” exercise, in which a team of climate “skeptics” would be the ‘red team’ seeking to poke holes in the current body of climate research defended by a ‘blue team’ group of climate scientists. Administrator Pruitt has expressed interest in having this be televised. Reportedly, political appointees at the EPA are consulting with the Heartland Institute (yep – they are the ones that likened people who accept climate science to the Unabomber) to assemble names of red-team candidates.

Few details have emerged for how this might be structured and into the current void, leading scientists and scientific societies have stepped in: to point out that rigorous peer-review at the core of the scientific enterprise is built on healthy skepticism—that, as scientists, we are always seeking to poke holes in one another’s work and that our current understanding of climate change is based on decades of rigorous challenges to and questioning of core assumptions and findings; to ask Administrator Pruitt to clarify, specifically, what policy-relevant testable hypothesis about climate science he has that he believes peer-reviewed science and scientific assessments have not yet addressed; and to call into question his motives for such an exercise: political theater, intended to sow doubt and perhaps, motivated to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions.

If Administrator Pruitt, or any other federal official, has questions about climate science – or, for that matter, any other area of policy-relevant science – they already at their disposal have a body to whom they can and should turn for legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective scientific advice.  In 1863, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was established by President Abraham Lincoln. The Academy’s charter commits it to provide scientific advice to the federal government “whenever called upon” by any government agency. Time and again, our nation’s leaders have turned to the NAS for timely, policy-relevant scientific advice.

On climate change, the National Academy of Sciences has produced multiple, rigorous independent assessments of the state of the science, and on the implications of scientific understanding for our nation’s climate and energy choices. And it has produced excellent accessible web-content to address “frequently-asked” questions about climate science.

Administrator Pruitt’s call for a review of the findings of climate science echoes in many respects the climate science review that President George W. Bush sought sixteen years ago. In May 2001, shortly after President Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, he asked the NAS for “assistance in identifying the areas in the science of climate change where there are the greatest certainties and uncertainties” and to do so on a rapid timeline.

In consultation with the Bush Administration, the NAS identified fourteen specific policy-relevant questions about climate science to address. It convened through the National Research Council (NRC, the research arm of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine) a panel of eleven scientists with legitimate and diverse expertise and perspective. Notably, the panel included prominent climate skeptic Richard Lindzen of MIT.

Their report, produced in one month, affirmed that that the Earth was warming due to human activities and that further warming posed significant risks:

“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century.”

“Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century, especially if globally-averaged temperature increases approach the upper end of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC projections.”

The NRC’s panel’s findings succinctly reflected the state of scientific understanding in 2001. Of course, the science of climate change has advanced considerably in the past sixteen years.

It can be hard to keep up.

Administrator Pruitt, and other federal officials, certainly have a right to have any questions they may have about the science answered. But if they are serious about doing so through legitimate, objective, peer-reviewed process, they must turn to the US National Academy of Sciences.

Anything less will be rightly seen as an illegitimate, politicized effort to undermine the process by which scientific knowledge informs decision-making.

Conferences and Condors: UCS Unveils a New Toolkit for Scientists Engaging on the Endangered Species Act

Photo: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Hundreds of ecologists will flock to the west coast next week as the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting convenes in Portland, Oregon. I will be speaking there, armed with our newly released guide, Advancing Science in the Endangered Species Act: A Toolkit for Scientists.

The toolkit provides a concise but thorough rundown of the Act, the threats to it, and the most effective ways scientists can leverage their expertise to help inform endangered species decisions, advocate for science-based decision making, and collaborate with other endangered species advocates. As the barrage of attacks on the law show no signs of slowing, there are ample opportunities for scientists to act.

Despite its overall success, we have already seen several attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act this year alone, with calls to undermine the science-based process by allowing for economic considerations in the listing process, blocking gray wolf protections in the Midwest, and prioritizing information provided by states, tribes, and counties as “best available science”—regardless of the actual merit of the information given (see our letter of opposition here). We will likely see more, if the fervor of overall political attacks on science under the current administration to date is any indication.

A California condor flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS). Condor recovery efforts have helped increase the population of California condors from 23 in 1982 to 435 as of 2015.

What’s in the toolkit

The toolkit comprises four sections:

  • Understanding the Endangered Species Act
  • Threats to science-based endangered species policy
  • Leveraging your voice as a scientist
  • Additional resources

You will get a concise but thorough rundown that details the Act’s provisions and explains how the law works in practice. You’ll learn about the core components of the Act, the criteria for listing, the listing process, and who plays a role in species protection, as well as the risks to the Act from political interference, suggestions for ways to push back, and a variety of ways scientists can help protect species at risk. And of course, you will have an arsenal of resources to guide you, because no toolkit is complete without a good list of information sources and potential partner organizations.

Scientists: You can make a difference

More than 800 scientists have now signed on to a letter asking Congress to reject efforts to gut the science-based law, building on a long tradition of scientists standing up to attacks on the Endangered Species Act (sign on to current letter here, read past letters here).

And this mobilization of the science community is crucial right now. This stuff matters. Restricting the use of science in the Endangered Species Act or making the law vulnerable to political interference, as has been the case with some recent legislative proposals, would lead to otherwise preventable species extinctions and the destruction of habitat that is essential to environmental health.

It is important to remember that, although the Endangered Species Act was politically contentious even under the Obama administration, the greatest, most salient difference is: we are now living in a post-truth America, where decisions are being made without the support of credible scientific evidence.  The entire process is under attack.

But this time, we are prepared to stand up for science and biodiversity—toolkits in hand.

To my fellow ESA attendees—if you are ready to jump in feet first and put the toolkit to use, sign up for our lunchtime Endangered Species Act Advocacy Workshop on August 9 (lunch included!), where we will walk participants through developing an action plan for advocating for independent science informing the law. If you’re a little shy or just need a bit more convincing, come to our Monday afternoon session “The Endangered Species Act Under Attack: Opportunities for Independent Science”. I’ll be debuting the toolkit in my talk there. See you next week!


USFWS Pacific Southwest

On Healing Sick Ecosystems

Part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site before remediation, October 2002. Photo credits: lgnc.org/conservation

I am a person who is fascinated by organisms of all kinds. I like the cute fuzzy ones that most people like, but also the scaly, leafy, prickly, stinky, or slimy ones, as well as the ones we can’t see without a microscope but that have outsized effects on the world around them. I am amazed by how many different ways there are to be alive on this planet, and moved by the intricate connections living things have with each other and their environments.

As I began to study the diversity of life, I noticed a pattern: many creatures are in danger because we humans are unintentionally destroying their homes. Whether by pollution, climate change, or clearing habitats to build things of our own, we have made much of the world less habitable for the living things with which we share it. We have already driven some species extinct, and many others are perilously close.

I believe there is a compelling moral case for preserving healthy, diverse ecosystems. There is also a strong practical case: we depend on intact ecosystems for services like clean water, fresh air, and pollinators that help our crop plants reproduce. Living near green spaces also improves our health and society as a whole. Thus, I chose a career studying how to help ecosystems best recover from our more destructive impacts. In my PhD research in Prof. Brenda Casper’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied how interactions between plants, soil-dwelling microbes, and heavy metals can affect the long-term development of ecosystems on metal contaminated soils.

One of the two zinc smelters responsible for heavy metal pollution in the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

Pollution and remediation: one site’s story

I conducted my studies in the portion of the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site owned and managed by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. The site consists of over 2000 acres on the side of a mountain in upstate Pennsylvania that was devastated by heavy metal pollution from two zinc smelters operating for much of the 20th century. When the site was at its worst, local residents and passersby on the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the site, frequently compared it to the surface of the moon, or the aftermath of a bomb explosion.

The site badly needed some kind of remediation to remove or contain the pollutants and mitigate their threat to human and environmental health. It was (and still is) crucial that remediation be guided by our best scientific understanding of site histories and the effects of heavy metals on humans and the environment. Interference in the form of censoring data about such sites, or letting corporate or political priorities dominate discussions about environmental stewardship, can only make remediation longer and more difficult.

Part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site before and after initial remediation (left, October 2002; right, August 2006). Photos: lgnc.org/conservation

Today, after over a decade of intensive remediation work involving scientists, community members, and numerous federal, state, and private organizations, the mountainside would be unrecognizable from the moonscape described above. Grass species with low metal uptake were planted to build healthy soil while keeping the metals sequestered underground. These grasses, now taller than most people, tower and sway in the breeze. In many places shrubs and small trees are coming in, and in the patches of forest that survived the pollution, dense canopies create cool shade over lush carpets of ferns. Birds, grasshoppers, and butterflies are diverse and abundant, and it is not uncommon to encounter deer at dawn or dusk. Hundreds of hikers and thousands of schoolchildren visit the area each year, largely thanks to land management and educational offerings by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, which now owns about a third of the site.

Sustained collaboration between scientists, land managers, and community members has been essential to this remediation effort. Early in the process, researchers made valuable contributions by documenting effects of the polluted soils on the site’s plants, animals, and microbes and by testing numerous revegetation strategies. Remediation of a polluted site had not been attempted on such a large scale before, and this early testing was key to the successful establishment of large-scale plantings.

Wildlife returning to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

Continuing challenges

Remediation of disturbed landscapes is an ongoing task, and both basic and applied scientific research are crucial to understanding how to do this task well.  Many fundamental questions remained when I began working in the site. For instance, we knew that a group of soil dwelling fungi called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF; soil dwelling fungi that trade plants nutrients for sugars) were important for the growth of many plants there, but we had little idea how AMF might affect plant metal uptake or metal tolerance under field conditions. After a couple years of work at the site, in the lab, and on the computer, I found that mycorrhizal fungi have little effect plant metal uptake, but that there is a remarkably close relationship between a plant’s species identity and the chemistry of the soil underneath it. This suggests that once plants are growing in an area, adding AMF will have little effect on their metal uptake. However, knowing what plants are growing in a certain patch of soil can tell us a lot about that soil’s chemistry.

The researchers and managers of the Palmerton site also feared that an uninvited tree species, gray birch, accumulated such high leaf metal concentrations that its leaf litter would elevate metals at the soil surface and poison neighboring plants, including the grasses they had worked so hard to establish. This pollution of soil via leaf litter has been hypothesized to occur but it has not yet been thoroughly tested, and the Palmerton site seemed like an ideal setting for such a test. Again, I investigated, and after a couple years of study, including planting, monitoring, harvesting, and analyzing nearly 500 oak and maple seedlings in the site, my colleagues and I found that metal-contaminated birch leaf litter does not increase surface soil contamination or poison other plants, but that soils under the birches and grasses differ in their concentrations of metals and organic matter in ways that could shape the continued trajectory of plant community development in the site.

Science-based decision making helps us reclaim and remediate ecosystems. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

How lessons learned from remediation help us rebuild ecosystems better

These findings are already shaping the course of continued remediation and broadening our more general understanding of how metal polluted ecosystems work. We now know that efforts to control plant metal uptake may be better served by altering soils or plant communities directly than by manipulating AMF. We also know that gray birch does not threaten remediation as was feared, though concerns remain that it may shade out the desired grasses or introduce metals into the food chain via its leaves. Furthermore, thanks to the work of dozens of other scientists in this and other contaminated sites, we are learning important information about the continued legacies of pollution, such as how metals do and do not move in groundwater, and the effects of contaminated sites on migrating birds that rest and feed there.

It is clear that conserving healthy, intact ecosystems remains preferable to disturbing them and then trying to rebuild them. As with most diseases, prevention remains far easier and cheaper than cure. However, for those landscapes we have already damaged, science is providing local residents and land managers with tools to improve their lives – and those of their invaluable fuzzy, leafy, or slimy neighbors—by reclaiming and restoring healthy ecosystems.


Lee Dietterich is an ecologist studying how interactions between plants and soils affect the movement of elements such as carbon, nutrients, and heavy metals in and through ecosystems.  He is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Prof. Daniela Cusack’s lab at UCLA.  When not doing science or exploring nature, he likes to play the piano and clarinet. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Energy Department Scientists Barred From Attending Nuclear Power Conference

Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was one of 30 U.S.-based scientists scheduled to speak at the quadrennial International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on fast breeder nuclear reactors in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in late June. Lyman did not attend the previous two conferences, in Kyoto in 2009 and Paris in 2013, and was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with hundreds of scientists from around the world, including more than two dozen from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories.

Shortly after he arrived, however, Lyman learned that the 27 DOE lab scientists listed in the conference program were no-shows. One session featuring a panel of four DOE lab scientists talking about code development was cancelled outright, Lyman said, while a handful of other panel discussions, originally comprised of five to six speakers, soldiered on without U.S. participation. “On the first day, the DOE attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow gave a 20-minute talk about the U.S. fast reactor program and refused to take questions,” he said. “That was it for the Energy Department.” Three DOE scientists did attend the conference, according to the DOE, but none of them were part of the official program.

Sandra Bogetic, a University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student who presented a research poster at the conference, also couldn’t help but notice that the DOE scientists were missing. Bogetic’s poster session was slated to include presentations by 122 scientists from 17 countries, including a dozen scientists from DOE labs. The DOE scientists were nowhere to be found, and another five DOE scientists missed a second poster session the following day.

“Everyone was in shock that they didn’t show up,” Bogetic said. “It’s the most important conference for fast reactors, and it was a lost opportunity for U.S. scientists to share their work at a conference that takes place only every four years.”

Mum’s the word

Scientists planning to speak or present posters at the IAEA conference were asked to hand in their papers to conference organizers last December, five months before the event. The deadline was then extended into January, and at that point, the 27 DOE lab scientists were all on board to participate.

In early April, however, the DOE scientists received an email from Sal Golub, associate deputy assistant secretary for nuclear technology research and development at the DOE, indirectly telling them that the agency was not going to let them go.

“Yesterday,” Golub wrote, “we informally notified the IAEA conference organizers of the following: Representatives from the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and DOE/NE contractors at the National Labs are currently unable to travel to Russia, which means they will not be able to attend the IAEA’s Fast Reactor conference in June.” He also assured the scientists that the DOE was “working with the organizers to adjust the program to reflect our absence,” which obviously didn’t happen.

Golub gave no reason why DOE scientists were “unable” to travel to Russia, and, when I asked him for an explanation, he referred me to the DOE public relations office. Spokespeople at department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois — where 15 of the 27 missing DOE scientists are based — were equally unhelpful.

A DOE spokesperson in Washington, who declined to be identified, responded in an email: “We greatly value cooperation with the IAEA and plan to continue to do so whenever we can. The Department of Energy and the [U.S.] Embassy were represented at the event.”

Christopher Kramer, Argonne’s media relations manager, also avoided answering my question. “I can tell you that Argonne greatly values its relationship with the IAEA and plans to continue cooperation whenever we can,” he said in an email. “… From what I understand, Argonne did have two people in attendance at the conference in question.”

I emailed both PR officers back and again asked why the scientists weren’t at the conference. No response.

Finally, I called a random sample of the grounded scientists. It was another dead end.

“I wasn’t able to attend,” one said tersely. “I won’t talk about it.” Click. “We were told not to deal with outside media or organizations,” said another. Click. Two others were slightly more talkative, but neither could clear up the mystery. “I know very little about the decision” to cancel the trip, said one of the scheduled panelists. “It was above my pay grade. I basically followed orders from management.” The other scientist, a would-be poster session participant, was clearly perturbed. “The only reason I know is the [DOE] Office of Nuclear Energy wouldn’t let people go,” he said. “They didn’t give us a reason. I don’t know what their rationale is. Other U.S. government agencies are sending their people to Russia.”

Trump’s war on science or a new cold war?

So what’s the story behind the case of the missing DOE scientists?

It could come down to money. It’s certainly no secret that the Trump administration wants to slash DOE science spending. Just last month, for instance, the department closed its Office of International Climate and Technology, eliminating 11 staff positions. The office, which was established in 2010, provided technical advice to other countries on ways to reduce carbon emissions. The administration’s proposed federal budget, meanwhile, would cut the annual budget of the DOE Office of Science — the nation’s largest funder of the physical sciences — by 17 percent to $4.47 billion, its lowest level since 2008, not adjusting for inflation. Outlays for nuclear energy research would drop 28 percent. Even more drastic, the budget for the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would plunge nearly 70 percent.

DOE spokespeople, however, didn’t cite financial constraints as a reason, and the cost of sending the scientists to Russia was presumably built into the fiscal year 2017 budget, which predated the Trump administration. In any case, Bogetic, the Berkeley grad student, told me that one of the scientists who wasn’t allowed to attend the conference asked the DOE if he could pay his own way. The answer was no.

It’s also tempting to chalk it up to the Trump administration’s war on science. Besides barring federal scientists from attending conferences, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the administration also has been preventing scientists from speaking publicly, dismissing key scientific advisors, denying public access to taxpayer-funded information, and ignoring scientific evidence to justify rolling back public health, environmental and workplace safeguards. No doubt, the administration’s hostility toward federal scientists may have been a factor.

The most likely explanation, however, is where the conference took place — Russia — and what it was about — nuclear energy.

U.S.-Russian relations, notwithstanding President Trump’s bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been deteriorating for quite some time. The White House is under investigation for possibly colluding with Moscow to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Congress just passed tougher sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, annexing Crimea, and supporting eastern Ukraine separatists.

Nuclear-related relations between the United States and Russia are also frayed. Last October, in response to U.S. sanctions, Putin suspended a U.S.-Russian agreement to dispose of excess weapons grade plutonium; an agreement to cooperate with the United States on nuclear energy-related research; and a pact between the DOE and Rosatom — the Russian state atomic energy corporation — to conduct feasibility studies on converting six Russian research reactors to safer, low-enriched uranium.

Putin’s actions didn’t get much media attention, but they should have. Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last December, Siegfried Hecker, former director of the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, warned that “the Kremlin’s systematic termination of nuclear cooperation with the United States … sets the clock back, putting both countries at enormous risk and endangering global stability.”

Rosatom was the co-host of the June IAEA conference, which was held in Yekaterinburg mainly because the world’s largest operating fast reactor is only 35 miles away, at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant. Conference participants were treated to a tour of the 880-megawatt BN-800 reactor, which began generating power last year, as well as its smaller predecessor, the BN-600, which has been running since 1980. There are only four other fast reactors currently in operation worldwide: one in China, two in India, and another one in Russia.

The IAEA conference, however, was not Russo-centric. Scientists from more than two dozen countries, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, participated. And despite Russia’s suspension of nuclear cooperation with the United States, U.S. scientists were welcome.

“Scientists shouldn’t be limited by political problems,” said Bogetic. “We are scientists. We need to communicate.”

Lyman, the UCS physicist who participated in a panel discussion at the conference, agrees. “With so many communication channels between the U.S. and Russia now cut off, it’s essential to preserve scientific cooperation in areas where there is common ground between the two countries,” he said. “Preventing DOE scientists from attending the IAEA conference — for whatever reason — was shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating.”

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.